Clinton's guru draws ire of friends and foes

June 28, 1995|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- I HAVE NO idea who will prevail in the already endless 1996 presidential wars. But I'm pretty certain who will be everybody's all-purpose villain.

His name is Dick Morris, a.k.a. Bill Clinton's Hidden Hand, Secret Guru and Midnight Svengali.

If you've never heard of Dick Morris, join the club.

He's a 47-year-old, Manhattan-bred hustler who is the Holy Ghost of politics -- operating everywhere, never seen. Where most consultants claw for publicity, Mr. Morris ducks talk shows, is rarely photographed or interviewed.

He's as invisible as a Maytag repairman.

The cinch is Mr. Morris will be the guy both 1996 parties love to hate.

White House aides resent his often secretive hold on Mr. Clinton. Democrats in Congress distrust him. Republicans -- many of whom paid him to run their campaigns -- sneer at him as a hired gun with the morals of a Mafia hit man.

Who is this supposedly sinister force?

The only certainty is that he's a lone wolf who'll work for both sides. And he's Bill and Hillary Clinton's 911 number when they're in a jam.

Even some Clinton loyalists compare Dick Morris to Rasputin, the 19th-century Russian mystic and faith healer who led the czar's family to destruction.

"He's the Aldrich Ames of politics," fumed Republican consultant Paul Curcio, comparing Mr. Morris to the CIA traitor.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., recalls Mr. Morris being paid to give Republicans the lowdown on Mr. Clinton in 1992. He says Mr. Morris advised them to tag Bill Clinton as "Slick Willie."

So much for loyalty.

Same Mr. Morris who calls Mr. Clinton -- at least when taking his paycheck -- "my political soulmate."

The only certainty is that Dickie Morris is the savior Bill and Hillary call on when they're in big trouble. The addictive pattern has gone on for almost 20 years.

He's the Clintons' emergency plumber.

"First in His Class," the excellent book on Mr. Clinton's Arkansas years, by David Maraniss, portrays Mr. Morris as a stormy, mercurial Dr. Fix-It. He and Bill Clinton would plot endlessly over polls. In one argument, Mr. Clinton punched Morris outside the governor's mansion.

hTC "I thought he [Morris] was an Eastern sharpie corrupting this moral man," Betsy Wright, then Mr. Clinton's chief of staff, told Mr. Maraniss. "But he was a smart little SOB. Mean. But God, he was good."

Arkansas' comeback achieved, Mr. Clinton would fire Mr. Morris, spurn him like a sleazy hoodlum -- until the next crisis. "It's as if I were too dirty to touch without gloves," says Mr. Morris.

No surprise then that the Clintons -- most notably Hillary -- called Mr. Morris for a desperate fix after Newt Gingrich's revolution stunned Democrats. Suddenly the White House staff discovered Dick Morris had been shaping Bill's strategy in night-owl phone calls and faxes.

You can bet not everybody was thrilled.

"Sure, there's resentment when somebody new has access to the president," says Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry smoothly. But people aren't at one another's throats. They work well together."

Maybe. But Democrats in Congress -- meaning leaders Dick Gephardt, David Bonior and Tom Daschle -- are terrified that Mr. Clinton's invisible guru is writing speeches, crafting ads and steering the president's destiny.

What Mr. Morris is telling Mr. Clinton seems to go like this:

1. "Triangulate" -- his word -- "between the Democrat left and Republican right." (Meaning a return to the "New Democrat" image of '92).

2. "Inoculate yourself against future attacks." (Thus Mr. Clinton's "Me Too" budget plan, cutting Medicare, that enraged many Democrats).

3. "Define yourself by taking on weak enemies." (Thus the Morris-inspired TV ads hammering gun zealots or Mr. Clinton's attacks on pro-lifers after Dr. Henry Foster's defeat.)

4. "Match your means to your goals, match governing to campaigns." (So the '96 Clinton campaign never stops).

What's troubling is that Dick Morris seems to hold no convictions, no philosophy, except to win at any cost. He lives by poll numbers. Such ambiguous zigging and zagging -- a moral emptiness -- is Mr. Clinton's biggest problem.

And it's not reassuring when a president lunges for a new messiah each time he's in heavy weather. Let's see, there was James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, David Gergen, Harold Ickes and Leon Panetta.

What's Mr. Morris -- Guru of the Month?

Sure, presidents have always had advisers. But the best ones, whether Roosevelt, Truman or Kennedy, made sure they were perceived as the man in charge.

I accept that Dick Morris is as advertised: A smart, mean S.O.B. But it won't help Bill Clinton if he's seen as Rasputin's tool.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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